Sunday, December 20, 2009

Doing Good

There are three constant questions that plague the anthropologist.

1. What is the relationship between objectivity and subjectivity?

2. How do people come to 'know'?

3. Is it possible to do good?

They are interrelated. Any self-respecting anthropologist will have spent inordinate, crippling amount of times wrestling with these questions. In my humble opinion if you have not spent at least 10 excruciating nights up late, usually alone, with a bottle of wine convinced IT is all subjective, meaningless, and impossible to improve, then you are not really an anthropologist.... you may instead be a missionary (or an environmentalist).

The morning after these wine fueled pessimistic fits, you wake up and realize that your job is meager:
1) To describe the world in a slightly more accurate way than it is usually described, particularly in places and amongst people that are often ignored, despite inevitable subjectivity.

2) To perhaps, by some small measure, when you expect it the least, you slide an unjust world into an attitude that is slightly more kind and reasonable to the disenfranchised, the colonized, and the abused.

The difference between the anthropologist and the 'do gooder', the small ngo startup, or the aid worker abroad is in historical study. A true classical training that is found in books and libraries and not in the field.

 It is this: you cannot get through a history of colonization without meeting the many well meaning men and women who believed they were helping people and instead caused genocide, famine, cultural disintegration, and slavery. This history is so common and so humbling that most anthropologists (particularly North, Central, and South American anthropologists) get incredibly nervous when people in common conversation talk about 'helping' anyone that is not a direct friend or family. At least I do. Hives, sweats, white-guilt ridden, nervousness.

Today I have been thinking that the distilled message of nearly all anthropological thought and writing, directed as much internally as out, is this: Try, please try, to be just a little less arrogant.

If this is the only accomplishment, then it is enough. And it would be a revolution.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Baby steps tire the soul

My friend Octavio used to have this dream of a field of strawberries, as far as the eye could see, located somewhere in and around California. In my friend's dream the strawberries were being picked by lines and lines of working white people.

Octavio (the heroic) was a terrible cynic, but what does his dream mean to our understanding of environmental justice?

I will write a longer blog once we are certain what is going to come out of Copenhagen. For now I will say that watching political posturing concerning climate justice, emissions reduction, etc., has been painful. This, despite knowing that this meeting is a) essential and b) better-than-before. Politics and science are two different beasts, and the former can make little sense to me. I find it difficult to accept small political advances.

Baby steps tire the soul.

A colleague today posted draft text for the reduction in emissions through deforestation and forrest degradation (essentially REDD) that might actually be ratified by the participating countries at the climate meetings. The text called for acknowledgement of indigenous rights and respect for traditional knowledge. This is good, a step forward... and yet, all I can really think is: sure... non-binding, at the discretion of the nation-state,  subject to interpretation, with no means of regulation. Good luck. Same old. Ink spots on a page. A lung full of air.

I promise one thing: if all that happens at these meetings is that world leaders agree to kick forrest dwellers out of their home-lands and encourage mono-cropping I am going to quit my PhD program.

I promise another: I will try not to be cynical all the time.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Welcome to the reluctant anthropologist and COP 15

In Copenhagen today and for the next two weeks many of my colleagues, friends and highly important strangers will be debating how to best reduce future green house gas emissions and increase carbon sinks, among other complex and highly politicized topics. Far over on the west coast of North America I am trying to follow the news and feeling blue about not having jumped on a plane. 

In honor of the UNFCCC's (United Nation's Framing Convention on Climate Change) grand politico-event I have created this blog to discuss the work of a socio-cultural anthropologist trying to unravel the mysteries of climate change, environmental migration, and the social world at large. 

Frightfully boring? Destined to fail? Shown to anyone other than my supportive husband? We'll see. For now, let me say:

Welcome, and here's to another blog bespoken mind.